MALCOLM ANDERSON had worked out the whole thing deliberately. Just as he worked out those weird short stories of his in the seclusion of his cottage in the fens where he lived with his aged mother who had never quite understood the peculiar bent of her son's genius. For genius it undoubtedly was.
A man of moods, without friends, and living inside himself to the exclusion of the outside world, though compelled by force of circumstances to work for his living in urban surroundings. That is, before a distant relative had left him enough in the way of an income to enable him to retire from the strenuous life and free to live where he chose. And that had been a lonely house in the fens some three miles from Luckmere. And there he would have been content to pass the rest of his life had it not been for the fact that George Leverson was blackmailing him.
Leverson had been his only friend—if the word 'friend' is applicable—in London. The one person in the world who knew of his solitary slip from the straight path.
And now Leverson was holding him to ransom. Very carefully and cunningly in the shape of borrowed money without a single hint at a threat, nothing that could be used in evidence in a court of justice. But blackmail all the same, and getting more weighty with every letter asking for a loan until Anderson was beginning to feel the weight of financial pressure.
Physically Anderson was a fine figure of a man, one who lived a hard, frugal life by choice and one who took a deal of outdoor exercise. Whereas Leverson was a typical town product with a natural bent towards dissipation.
Leverson must be got rid of, and that speedily if Anderson was not to be bled to death slowly—in plain English, murdered. Nor was the project particularly hazardous. Anderson lived with his mother in that lonely house on the fens with no outside help save an elderly woman who came in daily for a few hours. What more easy, then than to write a note to Leverson asking down for a night, having previously arranged that his mother should not be present, since she had relations in the next county, friends whom she frequently visited.
So the stage was set in conditions that were quite normal and the friendly note to Leverson was written. Would he come down by a late train one evening and walk the three miles from the station to the house in the fens? It was quite a friendly note for, so far, there was no sign that Anderson in any way resented the constant appeals to his purse.
And so Leverson, being in sore need of cash, as usual, came in reply to the invitation. But he never reached the lonely house in the fens for the simple reason that Anderson stole out of his abode under cover of the darkness and met his victim half-way and murdered him.
A smashing blow with a cudgel, and then the unconscious body was dragged from the deserted highway and plunged into a deep boghole, selected beforehand for the purpose, and the crime was hidden for ever. But not before Leverson had put up some sort of a fight and had grappled with his assassin. Half an hour later Anderson was back in his house, satisfied that his coming and going had been entirely unobserved, and that the menace which had been so long hanging over him was removed.
But there was one thing the troubled him greatly. In the brief struggle he had lost a dozen links or more in a platinum chain to which his old verge watch was attached. There was one end holding on to the watch and the other secured to a silver sovereign purse, but the middle of the chain was gone.
What had become of it? Was it lying on the road for some curious person to pick up or was it still in Leverson's grasp at the bottom of the boghole? A clue, perhaps a vital clue pointing directly to the scaffold. And, if it fell into the hands of the police...
Of course inquiries would be made by Leverson's relations, though he had no wife to raise the alarm. Even if the letter asking him down to the house in the fens was still intact, it would be an easy matter to say that Leverson had not turned up although he, Anderson, had expected him. Nor was there a single soul in the world who had the remotest idea that the two men were anything but the best of friends.
But the missing links in the watch chain worried Anderson terribly. A number of people knew about it; his mother to begin with, and the other clerks in the office where he had worked in London before that small fortune came his way. There was Carter, the cashier, for instance, who had under estimated its value, only to be told that it was platinum, and therefore worth far more than a gold chain would have been—and others.
Anderson sat brooding over his loss long after he got home, sitting before the dead fire in the grate, thankful that he was alone in the house. Company then would have been unbearable. It would be futile to set out in search of those missing links, and, perhaps, a danger if he did so. He cursed his perfervid imagination and dragged himself unwillingly to bed.
But not to sleep. He tossed wearily from side to side until the dawn broke and the haunting ghosts fled before the sunshine. He knew that his moody taciturnity spelt nothing to the village woman who came presently to see to his creature comforts, for she had seen him in no other temperament. And so the day passed and the next with a thankfulness of sorts that his mother was still away. She would have sensed the subtle change.
He craved for company and yet dreaded the chance. And so three dreadful days followed with no human voice other than those that came over his wireless. It was only the voice he wanted for aught else jangled on his nerves in discord. And then, on the third night, a sort of call from the grave.
"We are asked by the police to broadcast the following: 'Missing from his home since Wednesday last. George Leverson, of 16 Martindale - terrace, Amber - street, Bloombsbury...'"
Anderson switched off, hurriedly. So the hunt was afoot. Listen further, he had not dared. Yet from the start he had felt that police investigation must follow the crime. Once more that vivid imagination began to work though he strove to stifle it. What if suspicion fell on him? What if Leverson's body were found with that letter of invitation on him?
And what if the police kept silence on the point whilst they made inquiries elsewhere? Clever men, those detectives, and quick in deduction.
It would not take them long to find out that Leverson's moral character would not stand investigation. Suppose they obtained an order from the Secretary of State to examine Leverson's bank transactions? If that were done, then there would be found a score of instances when Leverson paid in drafts with Anderson's name as drawer upon them.
What a fool he had been not to have thought of that before. Those transactions would fairly reek with blackmail. How was he going to explain all that away? He might have to do that even if the body of the murdered man was not found. Leverson was a bit of a boaster in his cups, which were many and he might have told a score of people that he was going to see Anderson.
And so the self-torturing went on. He could see himself in the dock, and then in the witness-box facing a deadly cross-examination at the hands of Crown counsel. Perhaps the fiercest ordeal sinful man is ever called on to face.
He saw more than that—he saw himself standing on a scaffold with the prison chaplain intoning the burial service and his spineless self swinging grotesquely at the end of a rope. Once they hanged murderers in chains—perhaps it might be a fragment of chain that would hang him.
It was not until the fifth night that Anderson slept. And then only to dream the tragedy all over again. He was back once more on the lonely high road leading from Luckmere to the house in the fens seeking the lost portion of the platinum chain. He was hunting to the verge of the bog pool in which he had placed the body. It was fairly dry underfoot now though on the night of the crime there had been some heavy rain. And it seemed to Anderson, looking down, that the dead man's face was turned up to him with accusation in the sightless eyes.
Then next day it rained fairly hard so that Anderson, wandering far and wide for distraction and physical exhaustion, so that he might sleep again, arrived home at length with boots and clothing more or less saturated though he was too distrait to notice it. And once more that awful dream again. There seemed no way of getting rid of it.
Meanwhile nothing further so far as regarded the missing man. No doubt the police were active enough in their search, but not in the direction of Luckmere. Perhaps, after all, Leverson had destroyed the letter—there was no particular object in keeping it. If it had been found surely some sort of inquiry would have reached Luckmere by this time.
Then, once again that dreadful dream, this time more poignant than ever, and much more vivid. An overwhelming desire to revert once more to the scene of the tragedy, as if he had risen in the dead of night and tramped the deserted road as far as the boghole. Horribly conscious he was of his body, too, and of a certain weariness impossible to shake off.
Here he was by the edge of the pool at last looking down at the clear imprint of his boots, a double track leading to the pool and back again. No mistaking the impression of those rubber soles with the maker's pattern so clearly marked on them. And, so far no sign of disturbance in the water. And then a change. Voices in the distance followed by the tramp of feet and then four men unmistakably officers of the law despite the fact that they were in mufti. One of them carried a coil of rope with a stout triangular hook at the end of it.
These strangers advanced to the edge of the pool and paused whilst one of them pointed down to those damning footprints.
"Been here twice," he said. "Perhaps oftener before the rain came. Before the rain came."
"Stupid thing to do," the man with the drag muttered. "Almost like signing a confession, sir."
The man who had spoken first, nodded. He was evidently in authority over the other three, an inspector perhaps.
"Something like that, Symonds," he said. "But many murderers are taken that way. It's the mad streak that infests their blood. And they do say that this man Anderson is given to self-torture. Writes stories of the most gruesome kind. I have read one or two of them in magazines. Sort of Edgar Poe stuff. It was quite a brain-wave that sent you searching for Leverson here, Cox."
"Seemed natural, sir," the man addressed as Cox replied. "Especially after you had examined those two banking accounts. Blackmail, I said to myself, and blackmail it was. Then there was the letter found at Leverson's lodgings. And the discovery that Anderson was alone in his house on the night he had invited Leverson down here. Thinks I, Leverson was met on his way from Luckmere station by Anderson and murdered. If I was right, then he was killed somewhere here and the body hidden. And no better place with all these deep bogholes about. But I did not expect to discover the marks of Anderson's rubber-soled boots crying out to be investigated. We'll have the body in half an hour, sir, with any luck."
All this was passing in Anderson's dream. It seemed to him that he was crouched behind a fringe of tall grass and rushes listening to every word that was passing. Through the green screen he saw all that was going on. And in the same dream he knew that his worst fears were realised. It would be only a few hours before the prison gates would close on him. But as to those telltale footprints. How on earth had they got there? But for them, that peat-pool might never have been searched. They were definite enough to point a damning finger at the author of the crime. And they were his footprints made by the rubber-soled shoes he always wore. By what black magic had they got there?
Meanwhile, in his land of dreams, Anderson watched the dread work going on. He saw the drag lowered into the pool and presently a tightening of the rope.
"Got something here, sir," one of the men said. "Gently does it. Easy, a bit to the right. That's better."
Something rose to the surface—a mass of matter much as if a carcase in a bag had been raised to the light of those flashlights. Something half hidden in a mass of waterweed. And out of it projecting something in the shape of an arm. An arm with a hand attached to it. And a hand, moreover, that had an object firmly in its grip.
"Ah—what's this?" the leader of the group demanded.
"Looks like a bit of watch-chain, sir," the man called Symonds replied, "Gunmetal I should say."
The man in command took the links from his officer and wiped them dry. Then held them close to one of the flash-lamps.
"Nothing of the sort!" he said. "These broken links are platinum. I have a similar chain myself."
"So has Anderson," Symonds cried. "Don't you remember, sir, that we got that information from the office where he once worked? The other clerks used to chaff him about it."
The chief smiled on his subordinate before proceeding to examine the sinister bundle which had been brought to the surface by means of the drag. The clinging weeds were carefully swept away, and a white sodden face revealed. All part of the dream that held Anderson in a grip like a vice.
Subconsciously he was struggling with all his strength to shake it off. He wanted to wake up and know that this horror was bred of conscience and the haunting knowledge of his crime. It seemed to him that he slowly rose from his hiding-place and advanced in the direction of the officers. Then they saw him and gazed at him in amazement. He stepped to the side of the corpse and looked down at the dead face.
A great cry broke from him—a cry that rang out into the stillness of the night like that of some tortured animal, loud as a trumpet call. The binding spell was broken and the reality of life came back to Anderson sweating at every pore.
"Anderson himself," Symonds cried. "Our man—"
"Yes—Anderson beyond the shadow of doubt," the officer in charge assented, "and walking in his sleep!"